(2 p.m. EDT) -- Alongside BBQ's, sunshine and peak Caribbean cruising, there's a more unwelcome symbol of summer: Atlantic hurricane season, which officially runs from June 1 to November 30. This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center issued its annual preseason report, predicting that 2011's season will be above normal.
Specifically, NOAA is forecasting 12 to 18 named storms (winds of 39 miles per hour or more), of which six to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 miles per hour or more). Of the hurricanes, three to six could become major storms (category 3, 4 or 5; winds of 111 miles per hour or more). The seasonal average is 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
According to the NOAA release, the ranges -- which it predicts have a 70 percent likelihood of being realized -- are being driven by several climatic factors. These include past trends (ocean and atmospheric conditions, which have been conducive to active hurricane seasons since 1995); warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures (two degrees Fahrenheit warmer); and La Nina, which continues to weaken in the equatorial Pacific, having an impact on the Atlantic season by causing reduced wind shear. (Higher wind shear can limit storm intensification.)
While NOAA's prognostications don't always ring true, 2010's storm season was as advertised. There were 19 named storms, which impacted cruises and Caribbean destinations alike. In May 2010, NOAA predicted an "active to extremely active" season with 14 to 23 named storms and between eight and 14 hurricanes. Read a full recap in Cruise Critic's own Hurricane Zone.
A few key things to keep in mind for the upcoming season: Peak periods vary geographically; in the Eastern Caribbean and along the U.S. East Coast, the season tends to be busiest between mid-August and mid-September. In the Western Caribbean, it picks up in mid-September and stretches into early November. You're almost guaranteed to find a named storm somewhere, though, on September 10, which is historically the most active day of the season.
There is one certainty: We'll be covering the impact of storms on cruise travel all season long in the Hurricane Zone.
--by Dan Askin, News Editor